Designing your own Muse

Inspiration is like opportunity. Most people wait for it, but it also helps to work hard to make your own with whatever you’ve got to work with. I’ve mentioned before that I do more work refining the design of my creative process than any individual project I’ve worked on, and it’s paid big dividends. One of the topics I work a lot on is how to generate inspiration, which is basically “synthesizing spontaneous creativity”.

I once was being interviewed for a writing job and was shown a piece of concept art. “You’d need to come up with backstory for our established environmental concepts,” the interviewer was saying. “Do you think you can do that kind of work?”

I responded by creating 3 completely different cool backstories for the environment in under 3 minutes. Jaws literally dropped around the table. “Did you just come up with those on the spot?”

“Yep, it’s what I do.”

“Dude… You’re insane!”

I got the job. This wasn’t the product of creative genius, it was through hundreds of hours of practicing the following technique. Anyone could do just as well. The technique isn’t even original, you just need to trust and commit to it. Here’s how it works.

First, identify the genre you’re working in. Medieval fantasy? Hard sci-fi? Western? You don’t even need a name for it, just get an idea of the kind of stuff you assume naturally is part of that world. I knew the game I was being shown was mostly medieval fantasy with some steampunk thrown in. You figure this out because you want a context for what kind of ideas fit in this world (and what’s already there).

Second, pick another genre or setting that is as different as possible. Bonus points if it explores similar themes, just in a different environment. Dealing with medieval fantasy? Immediately I go either to the far future or the far past (creation myths) for inspiration.

Third, identify a cool idea in this new genre/setting and then ask yourself “what would a version of this cool thing be in the genre/setting I’m actually working in?” For example, you might identify that AI-controlled combat spaceships that go rogue and start attacking the wrong targets are a cool idea in science fiction.

What’s the medieval fantasy version of AI-controlled military spaceships? How about an enchanted, sentient ship that was created to hunt and destroy pirates goes rogue and starts attacking the good guys… Or maybe even leads its own pirate fleet now. That fits the setting but it’s not something we normally see in medieval fantasy.

This is just one of the many techniques I use to synthesize creative ideas. Like I said, the technique itself isn’t original or even unusual. But applying it and practicing it helps create ideas that are.

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